Academic journal article D.H. Lawrence Review

D. H. Lawrence's Dis-Ease: Examining the Symptoms of "Illness as Metaphor"

Academic journal article D.H. Lawrence Review

D. H. Lawrence's Dis-Ease: Examining the Symptoms of "Illness as Metaphor"

Article excerpt

One is ill because one doesn't live properly--can't. It's the failure to live that makes one ill. (WL 125).

Medical anthropology and the history of science teach the many ways in which illness, healing, and the relationship of patient to specialist have both changed and remained constant across cultures and over time. Literary genres can be equally informative on this complex subject. Of particular relevance to a study of D. H. Lawrence is Susan Sontag's famous essay "Illness as Metaphor," originally printed in the New York Review of Books more than thirty years ago and still thought-provoking and influential. Sontag's thesis is that, depending on the state of knowledge about disease and on salient cultural concerns, a particular disease may be accorded special status as emblematic of as well as endemic to its era. Tuberculosis, cancer, heart disease, AIDS--these (and other) illnesses (1) can be viewed as symbolic of the character of the individual and the society.

Lawrence provides a case study for this phenomenon for several reasons: first, he made use of his personal ailment as a metaphor for the ills of the early twentieth century; second, his controversial works were reciprocally considered by WWI society to be a symptom of dread disease; and, finally, his ruminations on the cause of TB bear on issues of parenting in our own times and enhance our understanding of the way non-medical issues may inform definitions of disease.

In his 1929 essay "Introduction to These Paintings," Lawrence avers that he knows "nothing about medicine and very little about diseases, and my facts are such as I have picked up in casual reading" (LEA 188). If true about syphilis (the disease he is here discussing), the statement does not apply to tuberculosis because that disease was well known to Lawrence from more than "casual reading," though he preferred not to discuss it. Frail from birth, Lawrence suffered throughout his life from what he usually referred to as the "bronchials." (2) (In Sons and Lovers, Paul says he's got a "weak chest" [SL 448]). Indeed, Lawrence mentioned his "bronchitis" about five weeks before he died of tuberculosis (7L 630)--also called consumption, galloping consumption, or the wasting disease--a common affliction of the period and one with which he had been definitively diagnosed by chest x-ray in 1924. "No doubt D. H. Lawrence's obsessive denial of his own illness was rooted in his character," says Thomas Dormandy in his history of tuberculosis, "but it was also nurtured by childhood memories" of the stigma associated with the disease, evidenced when certain families were shunned in Eastwood because a family member had been treated in a sanatorium (307-8). Whatever the reasons Lawrence avoided the term, biographer Brenda Maddox wryly notes that the true dirty word for him did not start with an "F" but rather a "T" (427): that is, he was loath to speak the word tuberculosis, as if the speaking of it had the power to do him in. One might say that he asked (to paraphrase Hamlet), "TB or not TB? That is the question." To this question Lawrence voiced a resounding response: "Not TB."

The unspeakability of tuberculosis is of a different order from Lawrence's acknowledgment of the limits of language in conveying meaning, as one finds in Women in Love, for example, when Birkin thinks, "What was the good of talking, anyway? It [his relationship with Ursula] must happen beyond the sound of words" (WL 250). In contrast, the word tuberculosis is all too communicative when the label in and of itself is considered a death sentence. Susan Sontag is instructive on this score. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, she states, the mere word tuberculosis was considered to be so potent that people were fearful of voicing it: the mother of the hero in one of Stendhal's novels, for example, "refuses to say 'tuberculosis' for fear that pronouncing the word [would] hasten the course of her son's malady" (6). …

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